Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

From St Catherine’s to the Nile

The development of tourism in the St Catherine’s area of the Sinai has brought Nile Valley and Bedouin Egyptians together in a process that should not be held back by security fears, writes Ahmed Shams

On the night of 19 April, the town of St Catherine’s, the historical and geographical heart of the Sinai Peninsula, faced a challenge unprecedented in its well-documented history of over 1,400 years.

There was a failed armed attempt to penetrate the security zone leading to the Holy Monastery of St Catherine and Mount Sinai. Security and military personnel succeeded in encircling two of the assailants the next morning after a shepherd woman had spotted one of them following a night-long search in a joint operation with local Bedouins from the Gebaliya tribe.

The mountain ranges around the main tourist area were not closed to visitors during these events, and the incident was followed by a joint operation, still ongoing, with local people to make sure the vicinity is totally secure. This operation limits access to the surrounding mountains. The Monastery succeeded through a timely statement by its spokesman to counter the circulation of any misinformation about the safety of the historic site and the Greek Orthodox monks.

I cannot recall any other area of the Sinai Peninsula where history, economy and culture are so intertwined and where security is better than it is at St Catherine’s Monastery, and this throughout my 17-year study of the Peninsula. St Catherine’s is a place where the local economy has been organised around the interests of the local Bedouin community and the safety of pilgrims, visitors and tourists for centuries. It is to be hoped that this will continue to be the case for many centuries to come.  

Historically, Sinai’s Bedouin culture has links to Sufism, and this kept local people well away from radical ideas throughout the 20th century. The land is dotted with shrines ― there are 85 mapped religious shrines across the Peninsula, in addition to many other unmapped ones – used by different Bedouin tribes as annual meeting places. This part of Bedouin culture connects members of the same tribe and different tribes together. There are more than a dozen shrines in and around the mountain range of St Catherine’s, including Nabi Saleh, a widely recognised shrine among the tribes of South Sinai.

Since the 1970s, tourism has brought diversity and international culture to South Sinai, even before it enjoyed wider exposure to the Nile Valley. However, this story was not new to the Bedouins, as pilgrims and visitors to the area had been bringing their different cultures with them for centuries. It is an open society, and it is not as isolated as some might think.

St Catherine’s Bedouins suffered from the decline of tourism in the same way as did the rest of the country after the 25 January Revolution, but unlike some other parts of the Sinai Peninsula the area never faced armed attacks. It has succeeded in establishing an exemplary community of the kind that Egypt needs, acting as a bridge between the youth in the Nile Valley and their Bedouin counterparts. It is place where Nile Valley youth can gain a first-hand sense of the Peninsula’s inland mountains and valleys, not just its coasts and resorts, helping to break the stereotypical images that may come to them through the national or international media alike.

Increasing numbers of young Egyptians from the Nile Valley hit the road to Sinai’s deserts and mountains every weekend or national holiday. The vast majority of these are heading to conventional inland destinations frequented earlier by their Middle Eastern or Western counterparts, while others are searching for new places to visit. These new Egyptian tourists are not brought to Sinai by tour operators. They arrive by using social media, by creating their own hiking groups (thousands of members) or small businesses, and by connecting with their young Bedouin counterparts.

The new young Egyptian tourists are often members of middle-class Cairo society, though they include budget travellers as well. Unlike some of their parents, they do not share a negative image of the desert and its people. Their experiences in Sinai are shared with much delight, encouraging more young Egyptian tourists to follow them to the Sinai Peninsula. This is now a steadily growing flow that can bring great opportunities if these are well-harvested. The new Egyptian tourists provide an alternative income to the Bedouins, partially replace declining western tourism, and this is especially the case as the new groups travel in large numbers.

A new generation of Bedouin entrepreneurs is thus emerging equipped with high-resolution mobile-phone cameras and social media accounts. The Sinai’s young Bedouin generation from the different tribes that inhabit the tourist areas in South Sinai has succeeded in re-connecting with counterparts in the Nile Valley. This new St Catherine’s bridge between the youth in the Nile Valley and the Sinai Peninsula has been able to create “open deserts” in the area, playgrounds for unprecedented youth exchange, with Valley young people often staying in local budget ecolodges and walking desert trails.

The government is likely to take extra security measures in the aftermath of the recent incident at St Catherine’s. These should not undermine the success of the Gebaliya tribe in securing its own territory for centuries, or in establising St Catherine’s as an inland meeting place. The Holy Monastery of St Catherine and Mount Sinai is well-secured and under the protection of local people and the authorities, helped by the complex topography of its location.

The government should now develop a stronger interest in the “open deserts” that have been established over the past few years during one of the most difficult times in the Peninsula’s modern history. These have brought incomes to many remote villages and households and made it feasible for Bedouin youth not to abandon their home areas in the search for livelihoods elsewhere.

St Catherine’s stands out as an inland destination, and many of the recent Egyptian visitors have been learning about the mountain and desert environments that may be very new to them. Meanwhile, the local Bedouin tribes are reconnecting their communities with their counterparts in the Nile Valley. They eye St Catherine’s success as an example, which is why it should not be held back by excessive security measures.

Much has changed over recent years, but many opportunities are still to come that are similar to the success of St Catherine’s reconnection with the Nile Valley. This has been a pioneering cultural experience for both young Nile Valley and Bedouin Egyptians, and it can only serve Sinai’s security and development.

The writer teaches at Durham University in the UK and is the founder of Sinai Peninsula Research.

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